By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 17, 2013 at 3:08PM
It's easy to see why director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") was intrigued by the prospect tackling Stephen King's "Carrie." The material takes two key rites of passage for young women— their first period, and their high school prom—and blends it with oppressive religious fundamentalism and the supernatural, into one unforgettable tale, with rich subtext and themes to play with. But in terms of a remake, the question has always been whether or not anyone could top or put their own mark on "Carrie" after Brian De Palma did it with such style and panache. And to Peirce's credit, she did have an approach that was unique, at least theoretically.
“I read ‘Carrie’ again and realized, 'Oh, these are all my issues: I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence.' Like Brandon [Teena], Carrie has gone through life getting beaten up by everyone. She’s got no safe place. And then she finds telekinesis—her talent, her skill—and it becomes her refuge," she told the New York Times. "And I thought, 'Wow, this is an opportunity to make a superhero-origin story.' With her period comes the power. With adolescence comes sexuality, and with sexuality comes power.” And while that's fascinating on paper, in execution it’s problematic, particularly in a movie that doesn’t dare to stray too far from the basic structure and narrative of De Palma’s film.
The first moment it becomes clear that this film won’t take too many risks arrives fairly early on. The volleyball game from the original movie, which sets the tone of the bullying the teenage Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) faces, is transferred to a swimming pool in Peirce’s film. The camera glides underwater, taking in the long limbs, and yes, crotches, of the young women, and one immediately senses the opportunity to kick things off in an even more raw and embarrassing manner than the 1976 movie. What if Carrie experiences her first period while in the pool? What could be even more humiliating than that? But Peirce doesn’t seize that chance, with the sequence winding up as an unsatisfying tease. Instead, it’s in the shower—in a sequence shot nearly identically to De Palma’s movie—where the blood first flows, and once again, Carrie’s classmates are merciless, throwing tampons at her and chanting, “Plug it up!” But in a contemporary twist, the event is captured on a cell phone too.
When Carrie’s petrifying arrival into womanhood is posted to YouTube, she becomes further ostracized at school, but finds a defiant defender in gym teacher, Ms. Desjardins (Judy Greer). She rounds up the gaggle of teen girls responsible for the shower incident and viral video, and again hands out detentions (though with far less gleeful conviction than Betty Buckley), with the threat of a ban from prom looming for anyone who dares to step out of line again. But the snotty, entitled Chris (Portia Doubleday) isn’t having it, and is soon bounced from prom after pushing back too hard, while Sue (Gabriella Wilde) is weighted by a guilty conscience. Her solution? Persuade her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Englort) to give Carrie at least one night as someone special by taking her to the prom. And, we all know how that ends...
To be sure, there are some interesting changes Peirce and screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa bring to this modern take. Most significantly is Carrie herself, given a nice turn by Moretz, who will silence any doubters she wasn’t right or was too famous to play unpopular in this part. Her Carrie displays a well versed knowledge of the Bible and a stronger sense of self-preservation which allows her to more strongly defend herself against her self-harming, delusionally faithful mother Margaret (Julianne Moore). And getting the movie off to a gruesome start, we’re treated to a brief flashback of the day Carrie was born, one which is supposed to underscore Margaret’s fear that her daughter is literal hell spawn (an idea that starts off well enough, but winds up not unlike the chest-burster scene from “Alien”). But overall, the tweaks (including a role reversal of the poetry angle) are cosmetic, and ultimately can’t hide the fact that the film is a near disaster in every other department.
For a movie in which Peirce wants to explore the relationship between sex and power, it’s curious that Chris has gone from the blowjob giving, sexually manipulative, quintessential mean girl of De Palma’s film, to a borderline victim here. She’s dating the older Billy Nolan, and far from the warmly doofy portrayal by John Travolta, Alex Russell’s version is given much more credit for the pig blood prank, with Chris at times edging towards an unwilling participant who can’t help herself. It’s an unfortunate shift, one that undermines the idea of sex as currency, and Chris’ basic role as the ringleader and teen who never lets a grudge go. It seems odd to make a movie about the relationship between power and sex, and then soften the one character who uses one to get more of the other, but it turns out that’s just a symptom of a larger issue “Carrie” faces.
If Bria De Palma’s heightened, hysterical, campy and ultimately terrifying movie worked for any reason, it’s because he rightly realized that by pitching everything to a level just beyond real, the material took on the dimension of a truly grand and tragic opera. When Carrie enters the prom in his film, your heart bleeds for her, because you know her dream will be shattered. But Peirce’s much more sober, straightforward presentation lacks the knowing wink of De Palma, but more crucially reorients Carrie’s journey into a rather simple revenge tale. When the bucket of blood comes raining down, Sissy Spacek’s Carrie's wave of death was driven by the heartbreaking emotion of the moment. But Chloe Grace Moretz’s Carrie is much more methodical and cunning, but that strength is a narrative weakness. When Spacek’s Carrie kills everyone in sight, the extent of her powers are a terrifying revelation, but when Chloe Grace Moretz’s Carrie heads into the prom having practiced her skills extensively, it seems simply inevitable. And when she practically turns into a X-Men in the film’s climax (her telekinetic powers take on even more dimension), it begins to veer toward the ludicrous.
And the whole picture is threaded with tonal inconsistency, and a vibe that keeps the proceedings on uneven footing. Peirce’s attempt to modulate the material leaves Moore hanging out to dry, with her wild haired portrayal often incongruous with the overall feel of the movie, and particularly Moretz’s more inward, reserved turn; the pair seem like they are acting opposite each other in two different movies. And even Marco Beltrami’s score seems non-committal, lacking the sort of knowing lyricism of Pino Donaggio’s work for De Palma, one that easily weaved its way through the knotty number of genres that influenced the director. But if none of this convinces you that “Carrie” wobbles under it’s own semi-serious conceit, then perhaps the brief, random montage of dudes getting their tuxedos set to Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young” will change your mind.
And then there is the R-rating, the mere knowledge of which excited some corners of the internet. But oddly enough, for all that minor buzz, Peirce’s film doesn't really make much use of that territory. There’s no nudity, a few f-bombs and one can only surmise that it's the mildly gruesome kill shots (which only underline the revenge driven focus of his “Carrie”) which earned the movie its R-rated badge. But make a few small edits, and it’s likely this would’ve gotten a PG-13 without changing much. And all of this combined brings a sense of uncertainty over the entire endeavor, with the push/pull of ambition and commercial potential palpable in every frame.
And so, when the end comes, and the suggestion of a sequel is left faintly lingering (though not in the way you’re expecting), weariness descends on just how unimaginative “Carrie” is and how easily it settles for the expected, rather than striving to be excitingly refreshing. Carrie may go out in a blaze of glory, but Kimberly Peirce’s film barely raises enough heat to make it worth pulling the alarm. [D]